It's not often that a PBS program becomes a pop-culture phenomenon, but over the past three years, the British period drama Downton Abbey is must-see TV around the world.
The critically acclaimed show chronicles the aristocratic Crawleys and their servants, who live and scheme in their majestic country house in the early 20th century. How the sprawling cast of characters weather their various crises and intrigues against a backdrop of historic events and social changes makes the show written and created by Academy Award-winning screenwriter Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park) infinitely compelling.
Fans who've been patiently watching the most recent season play out on Sundays since it began airing Jan. 6 on Masterpiece will have to be on spoiler alert from here on out if they want to be surprised by the remaining episodes, which conclude Feb. 17. That's because, come Tuesday, Downton Abbey: Season 3 (2012, PBS, not rated, $50; Blu-ray, $55) arrives on home video. Of course, those fans are used to this given that the show aired in the United Kingdom in the fall and was released there on DVD and Blu-ray in November. It's also a good way for those who have heard of, but not seen, the award-winning drama a chance to find out what all the fuss is about.
Season 3 begins in 1920, and the great houses are struggling in the aftermath of The Great War. Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville), the Earl of Grantham, and his American heiress wife, Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), the Countess of Grantham, are preparing for the wedding of Matthew Crawley (Robert's third cousin, once removed and heir presumptive, played by Dan Stevens) and their eldest daughter Mary (Michelle Dockery). That elicits a visit from Cora's American mother, Martha Levinson (Shirley MacLaine), who is sure to clash Robert's mother, the Dowager Countess Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith, who has won two Emmys in the role). Youngest daughter Sybil Branson (Jessica Brown Findlay) and husband Tom Branson (Allen Leech) are also expecting their first child.
On top of all that, Robert's bad investments and slipshod management has brought the house to near financial ruin, and he has to find a way to save his beloved home.
Downton Abbey's first two seasons brought it a raft of awards, including a Golden Globe and an Emmy for best miniseries. It has garnered a total of 27 Emmy nominations, winning nine. It has also been the most-watched series on both PBS and Britain's ITV and is the most-watched British costume drama since 1981's Brideshead Revisited.
The Season 3 set (3 DVD or 4 Blu-ray discs) comes with two hours of bonus material, including the features "Downton Abbey Behind the Scenes," "Shirley MacLaine at Downton," The Men of Downton" and "Downton in 1920."
Filming starts on Season 4 in February, and new episodes will probably air in the U.K. in the fall, before returning to the U.S. Those curious about any story lines about the Crawleys left dangling at the conclusion of Season 3 should check back about the same time next year.